By Tommy Hough
Any fan of the outdoors in Southern California worth their salt knows the harsh landscape of the desert also has a soft side, whether it's the gentle, sandy slopes of the Cadiz Dunes, the coat of a wild desert kit fox, or the visual splendor and riot of color of the spring wildflower bloom.
Our deserts are some of our nation's last truly wild places and sources of needed elbow room. And with five new wilderness areas having been established by the recent public lands bill signed into law last month, more of our Southern California deserts are being managed for conservation than ever before.
Curiously, the desert has another resource some in Washington, and here in California, are eager to tap into and exploit: water.
An area called the Fenner Basin in the Mojave Desert is home to a massive, crescent-shaped underground aquifer that holds trillions of gallons of groundwater, and feeds at least five springs in the eastern Mojave that are critical for area wildlife and regional ecosystems. The age of the aquifer is also significant, with some estimates placing it at around 10,000 years old. Its presence ensures the region will never be entirely baked into oblivion by punishing summertime temperatures, or by our warming climate.
The northern end of the aquifer was first protected when Fenner Basin was drawn into the original boundaries of Mojave National Preserve, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton as part of the Desert Protection Act of 1994.
In 2016, after years of galvanizing public support for wilderness initiatives, desert advocates scored another victory for American conservation when President Obama established Mojave Trails National Monument along wild portions of old U.S. Route 66, incorporating the southern portion of the Fenner Basin aquifer.
Unfortunately, shortly after the arrival of the Trump administration, the Interior Department unveiled a plan to reduce the boundaries of over 20 National Monuments, mostly in the west. Mojave Trails was included on that chopping block, and while Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, both located in Utah, had their boundaries shrunk, at this point the same fate has not befallen Mojave Trails. Not yet.
The Trump administration's move to shrink National Monument boundaries is unprecedented, and in the case of Mojave Trails, it's clear the point is to facilitate the pumping of the Fenner Basin aquifer for commercial purposes. The only company interested in doing so is Cadiz, a Los Angeles-based conglomerate with significant ties to the Trump administration and Interior Secretary nominee David Bernhardt, whose lobbying firm has represented Cadiz on this matter in the past. Cadiz owns property within the National Monument and wants to tap into the aquifer beneath its inholding.
Cadiz claims its wells can pump at least 16 billion gallons of water each year from the aquifer for 50 years without harming any springs, wildlife or plants on the surface. The company claims the aquifer receives about two-thirds of the amount of water they plan to draw out annually from rain and snow, but the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service say no.
According to those agencies, the Cadiz project would pump up to 25 times more water than the aquifer receives each year, lowering the water table and drying up local springs – thus harming the desert wildlife that has relied on those springs for centuries. The Cadiz Project will aggravate desertification, and decimate a cross section of Mojave Desert wildlife and ecology as it tries to steal and sell groundwater from one of the driest places in the United States.
Curiously, in the Trump administration's haste in re-writing federal railroad right-of-way laws in order to facilitate the Cadiz plan, they missed the fact that any pipeline from the Cadiz inholding in Mojave Trails must cross state land. While the state lands commission has the final say on how a pipeline may be placed and utilized on land that belongs to California taxpayers, there have been recent moves in the legislature to head the problem off with bills that would have prevented Cadiz and the Trump administration from draining the aquifer.
Unfortunately, the bills were killed in committee in the State Senate, and the critical policy affecting the aquifer never implemented. So conservationists are once again going to bat, this time for SB 307, introduced by State Senator Richard Roth (D–Riverside). The bill would enable the protection of the Fenner Basin aquifer beneath Mojave Trails, and at last, put an end to the destructive Cadiz proposal. If passed by the State Senate, Assembly passage would be likely.
The bill is up for a vote in the California Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, after Cadiz asked for more time to formulate a response. SB 307 needs a resounding yes from the committee as the bill heads to the full State Senate. One of the votes SB 307 needs is Senator Ben Hueso, whose 40th Senate District includes much of southern San Diego County and Imperial County.
As a Californian, outdoorsman, and co-founder and first president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action, I'd like to ask Sen. Hueso to consider the science, the proud conservation heritage of our state, the need to preserve our natural aquifers and water resources, and the need to resist the environmentally destructive Trump agenda – and vote yes on SB 307 in the Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.
Photos by Michael Gordon and Tommy Hough.
By Tommy Hough
With Interstate 15 running through the middle of it, I knew my visit to Walker Canyon to see the superbloom wouldn't exactly be a wilderness experience. Like it or not, however, this is the year to go.
The bloom is like nothing you'll see outside the brief riot of color in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, or the vast wildflower blooms along the San Andreas Fault at Carrizo Plain National Monument in the southwest corner of the San Joaquin Valley. The intensity and volume of this year's bloom in Walker Canyon also rivals anything I've seen at the similarly spectacular, and more predictable, Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve near Lancaster.
The problem is, Walker Canyon isn't designed to handle more than a few visitors at a time. And with a major Southern California freeway delivering motorists directly into the blooming hills that can be seen from 10 miles away as a red apparition floating along the horizon, the crush of tens of thousands of sightseers compelled to pull off at Lake Drive and get out, walk around, get in the way of other cars and take selfies is simply unavoidable.
Located just north of Lake Elsinore in the hills of the Temescal Mountains, Walker Canyon is managed by the Riverside County Regional Park and Open Space District, and is a designated county wildlife conservation area. It isn't managed as a park, because it's not a park. It's open space that has been so denuded by wildfires over the last 20 years due to its proximity to the freeway, and further damaged by excessive off-road vehicle use, that its value as an aesthetic outdoor destination are somehwat lacking – except during rare superblooms. Almost every other day of the year the Temescal Mountains and Walker Canyon are, at worst, dismissed as the "ugly, brown hills north of Lake Elsinore" one drives through on the way to destinations in the Inland Empire.
Curiously, the canyon's persistent fires and off-road vehicle abuse, aided by the presence of a major freeway and a wind tunnel effect into the Temescal Valley, make for ideal poppy-seeding conditions. While this isn't an endorsement of unnecessary wildfire or destructive recreation, California poppies love to grow in burned and disturbed areas, often capitalizing on fresh layers of soil revealed from the scorching effect of wildfires. The wind from traffic and nature also do a excellent job of blowing poppy seeds into all corners of the canyon, part of the larger reason why California motorists often find bright "explosions" of poppies next to major roads and freeways during the spring.
My first wildflower stop that day was Railroad Canyon in the city of Lake Elsinore, but when I arrived at Walker Canyon just to the north I was amazed at the traffic. The first thing that crossed my mind was the chaos of the 1969 Woodstock festival, and the miles upon miles of traffic chaos and cars jammed into clumsy parallel parking slots along the length of a few narrow, rural roads. The second thought that crossed my mind was this is what it would look like at places like Yosemite or the Redwoods if we didn't have management for our parks and special places. We have designated places or conservation so we don't stomp our resources to death, even out of love and attention.
The other major "bloom" sites in our end of the state have greater resources available to them because, by and large, they're parks with a heritage of managing hordes of visitors before they stomp to death the wildlife or wildflowers they've come to see. Carrizo Plain National Monument is probably the most primitive of these locales, in part because the area is so massive and there are so few nearby services. Walker Canyon has the opposite problem: it has a major freeway going down the middle of it and is five minutes away from an In-n-Out Burger.
I was heartened to see that Riverside County had done what they could to rope off swaths of the area, so visitors were kept to the trails and dirt roads, and the wildflowers could be plainly seen but not crushed. Drawing from their lessons from the 2017 bloom, the county has essentially funnelled visitors to three trailheads along Walker Canyon Rd. The heaviest use I saw was at the trailhead at the Lake Street exit off I-15, but heading south the crowds thinned out to less-dangerous levels, and I wound up parking my car by the gate at the end of the road.
The county had also posted dozens of quickly-made signs asking visitors to "stay off the flowers," and had good signage noting closed trails. While visitors and sightseers have largely obeyed, it was clear a few thousand more people would make things much more difficult to manage. I commended a ranger for the work his small staff had been able to do, but on my hike back I began to see dozens of people on ridges and closer to the trailhead already taking liberties and wandering off into the flowers themselves, no doubt crushing some of the thousands of painted ladies, butterfly chrysalises, and flowers themselves.
The next day, the entire area was shut down due to the volume of humanity descending on it, when visitors overwhelmed the rope barriers and any semblance of order, crushing many of the bloom areas in the process. While that's a sad bit of news, the ranger I'd spoken with the day before told me they expect the bloom to continue for another few weeks, in part due to the extraordinary rain we've received this winter, additional rain that was expected, and warming temperatures.
Since my visit on the Ides of March I've seen even more impressive photos of Walker Canyon from the nearby Ortega Highway along the eastern edge of the Santa Ana Mountains, and as well as an aerial photo of taken by flight intructor David Werntz, who flies out of the El Monte Airport in the San Gabriel Valley. I've shared some of my Railroad Canyon and Walker Canyon photos as a slideshow below.
So while Anza-Borrego's bloom may be spectacularly short-lived and the Antelope Valley and Carrizo Plain certainly worthy of a lengthier investment of time from San Diego, Walker Canyon and the Riverside County backcountry may be blooming for the forseeable future. Step lightly.
All photos © 2019 Tommy Hough
By Tommy Hough
The sweeping public lands bill signed into law by President Trump on Tuesday is the kind of idiot-proof bill of decades past, when Democrats and Republicans worked across the aisle to score wins for their home states and districts, and passed sensible, popular policy the public was in favor of.
The passage of the Natural Resources Management Act of 2019 is a huge win for the environment, for wildlife, ecosystems, and American conservation – made possible by decades of work by thousands of tireless activists whose names may be never be known, but who worked year after year on local projects important to their communities. Given the anti-science, anti-environmental era we live in, this victory is a moment of sweet irony and an environmental milestone. It is worth savoring, and celebrating.
From 1954 to 1994, the practice of passing sensible, popular policy was largely the norm in Congress. There were stark exceptions, of course, but those four decades of responsible – progressive, even – effort has come to be seen as a kind of congressional Golden Age.
But since the nationalization of midterm elections by an activist GOP in 1994, enabled by the rise of right-wing media in the wake of President Reagan's clueless "let the market decide" abdication of the Fairness Doctrine on public airwaves in 1987, bipartisanship became a dirty word as a radicalized GOP sought to cement the conservative gains of the Reagan era into, as Karl Rove called it, a "permanent Republican majority."
In doing so, the GOP's flirtation with dog whistles and idiocracy led not only to the Trump administration, but the flight of reason and reality from one of the nation's two major political parties. In its careless wake, the GOP created an amped-up, anger-driven, straw man-fed, resentment-fueled "movement" that eschews science, evidence and responsible inquiry – and continues to cite snowballs in winter as proof our global Climate Crisis is a hoax.
Over the last 10 years, an evermore gerrymandered Congress became a place where Wilderness and National Park bills went to die, and where effective conservation policy of decades past like the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and the Wilderness Act have not just come under attack, but are being rolled back as fast as possible by the Trump administration, whose job as the executive branch is to enforce those laws passed by that earlier, Golden Age of idealized congressional wisdom and compromise.
A decade ago, when Democrats last controlled Congress and the White House, President Obama signed into law the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. Despite that bill's uninspiring name, the legislation was a needed boost for conservation efforts in the wake of the Bush administration, and ultimately added two million acres of designated Wilderness nationwide – the gold standard of federal conservation protection – plus miles of newly-recognized National Wild and Scenic Rivers.
It was a big win, but environmentalists knew it would be the last decent public lands bill for some time. And like nails in a coffin, the Tea Party election of 2010 ensured it would be so. Since then, Wilderness and other public lands packages accumulated into a legislative backlog in Washington, as the GOP Congress dismissed conservation bills out of hand while looking for excuses to shut down the government.
Congress even allowed the popular and effective 1965 Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which utilizes offshore oil drilling revenue to fund everything from trail maintenance projects to grants for little leagues, to expire on its 50th anniversary in 2015. Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah, then-chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, shamelessly referred to the LWCF as a slush fund.
But by the summer of 2018, things began to change as the congressional GOP could no longer ignore the rising tide of the Blue Wave – like water racing out to sea ahead of a tsunami. As word from panicked district offices reached Washington that the Blue Wave was real, Congressman Bishop, recognizing his state's love and enjoyment of the outdoors, made peace with his Tea Party roots and began work with Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva to craft an agreement on the Land and Water Conservation Fund that would become the backbone upon which the 2019 public lands bill was built.
The election of a Democratic House in November provided the needed sea change, and began to loosen up the conservation front in the Senate. Since the new year, some GOP politicians have even dared to address the Climate Crisis, and Senate Democrats who ordinarily may have looked elsewhere for actionable policy took the lead on introducing new public lands legislation. With some gentle nudges from the conservation movement, the backlog of bills found new sponsors and bipartisan eagerness, and things began to move forward. The public lands bill passed the Senate on Feb. 13, and the House on Feb. 26. President Trump signed it on Tuesday.
Now, don't be fooled. The bad old days of shrinking National Monument boundaries and warping the mission of agencies like the Department of the Interior and the EPA into destructive tools benefiting polluters by the Trump administration are still with us. But the package of public lands bills signed by the president is so thorough and so far-reaching it not only preserves 400,000 acres of federal public land in California in National Park additions and new Wilderness areas, it permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That, in of itself, is epochal good news in this age of environmental rollbacks.
But for our environmental advocates who brought these initiatives and bills over the finish line, whose hours of sacrifice and time away from families made this possible – they will be back at it tomorrow. Because preservation doesn't end with one success. We must play defense on one hand and continue to preserve the bounty of Redwoods, Sequoias, wild beaches, canyons, mountaintops, glaciers and grassland passed on to us from previous generations. And there is so much yet to preserve in our nation and elsewhere for ourselves, for others, and those who will come after us.
The Natural Resources Management Act of 2019 is a worthy addition to America's conservation heritage. Now lace up your boots, grab a map, and explore our public lands.
Natural Resources Management Act of 2019 (Senate Bill 47)
What a prize this package is for conservation. In the Golden State alone, the California Desert Protection and Recreation Act expands Death Valley National Park by 35,292 acres, and Joshua Tree National Park by 4,543 acres. The seldom-visited but must-be-experienced Mojave National Preserve receives a comparatively smaller addition of 25 acres, while 87,999 acres (!) will be added to Death Valley National Park to be managed as Wilderness by the National Park Service.
As my friend David Lamfrom, California desert and national wildlife director with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), explained on my Treehuggers International show at the time of the rollout of Sen. Dianne Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act of 2010, the preservation of our desert wilderness not only retains intact ecosystems, but ensures continuity of wildlife corridors and the "very best of what remains."
The act establishes five new Wilderness areas on BLM-managed public land, totaling 207,300 acres:
The act also expands five existing Wilderness areas on U.S. Forest Service and BLM-managed lands by a total of 81,011 acres, including the legendary high country of the San Bernardino Mountains in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, one of the original Wilderness areas established by the Wilderness Act of 1964:
Over 77 miles of newly-protected National Wild and Scenic Rivers are included in the newly-signed package, including Surprise Canyon Creek just west of Death Valley and Deep Creek in the high country of the San Bernardino Mountains:
In addition, the California Desert Protection and Recreation Act establishes the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area in the Owens Valley. A popular camping destination and frequent filming location for Hollywood westerns and car commercials at the base of the eastern Sierra Nevada, the Alabama Hills are made up of strangely-shaped, windblown rock formations, and are plainly seen from U.S. 395 just west of Lone Pine and Independence in Inyo County. The area has been in need of greater ecological protection and recreation management for decades.
Also established is the long-awaited Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, which will most likely be located along the border of California and Nevada in the midst of desert tortoise habitat. The center will provide care to the long-living but threatened species, especially tortoises rescued or collected from development or renewable energy sites on federal land. The center will also support rehabilitation efforts and continued research on the tortoises' tragic condition of inheriting a virus during human contact that prevents them from safely returning to the wild.
Here in San Diego County, the bill transfers 934 acres of BLM-managed land to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, already the largest state park in California, to be managed as Wilderness under state guidelines.
Not only is the sanctity of wildlife corridors between large conservation areas like Wilderness or National Parks ensured with the passage of this public lands bill, but it also requires the BLM to assess the impacts of habitat fragmentation, and establish policies and procedures to ensure the preservation of wildlife corridors within two years.
It Doesn't End Here
Despite signing the Natural Resources Management Act of 2019 into law, the 45th president is, of course, no friend of the environment. From undoing National Monuments to ending required fuel efficiency standards for cars to enabling polluters to dump poison and toxins into America's rivers and waterways, the Trump administration has a great deal to answer for in this life, and the next. The damage and utter subversion Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt let loose upon their respective agencies at the Interior Department and EPA at the behest of polluters and the resource extraction industry should be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted by Congress.
And as if to provide a reminder his administration is the most virulently anti-conservation, anti-environmental in U.S. history, and as if to remind Americans that he cannot bear to sign desired and effective policy into law that literally brought together a historically divided Congress without some kind of pointlessly self-serving last word, Trump announced during the signing ceremony he had removed nearly all the money from the Natural Resources Management Act's most popular component – the restoration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Of course, Congress has the last say on that. So let your elected officials know the LWCF needs to be funded and utilized now.
Mojave National Preserve photo by Tommy Hough
Amargosa River photo by Bob Wick / Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
Kit fox and Soda Mountains Wilderness photo by David Lamfrom / National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA)
By Tommy Hough
Throughout my campaign for San Diego City Council in 2017 and 2018, the issue I spent the most time on and repeated over and over to every audience I spoke before was the issue of our crumbling roads and infrastructure.
As my team and I went door to door throughout District 6 in Mira Mesa, Clairemont, Rancho Peñasquitos, Kearny Mesa and Sorrento Valley, we emphasized the need for San Diego to invest in our communities and aggressively rebuild and maintain our roads to serve us for the next 60 years, and to prepare for a wet winter like the one we're experiencing.
Granted, San Diego isn't Boston or Chicago. But because our weather is much more benign and temperate, we as a city have often fallen into the trap of not maintaining our infrastructure as aggressively as other cities that actually experience severe weather. However, our roads are as susceptible to drainage issues and poor construction as any other, and we're now seeing the result of the short-term planning and lack of political will to meaningfully maintain our roads.
Cynical political operators may point to my concerns as shooting fish in a barrel, but this has long been an issue for residents. And nowhere is this emergency more acute than on the east end of Gold Coast Drive, the road that prompted me to run for office in the first place. Mayor Faulconer and Councilmember Cate should declare this road an emergency, and move heaven and earth to fix it immediately, before more damage is done to the cars of residents and commuters who use this critical arterial every day.
I'm aware plans are underway to rebuild Gold Coast Drive between Camino Ruiz and Black Mountain Road, in part due to my city council campaign making this long-neglected and potholed road an issue last year. One of my criticisms of Mr. Cate is that he has been in office since the end of 2014 and was certainly aware of the terrible state of Gold Coast, Parkdale, Port Royale, and other streets in Mira Mesa (detailed, in part, in a May 2014 article in Voice of San Diego) and had done nothing to address them other than to slurry seal neighboring streets which, frankly, were not in as severe a state of disrepair. But the slurry-sealing was window dressing, as well as an unnecessary aggravation for many residents. Worst of all, it never addressed the real problem of crumbling streets and problem roads like Gold Coast.
Throughout 2018 I warned that the only reason we didn't have worse potholes in District 6 was because we hadn't had a severe winter that year. Well, we're having a severe winter this year, and the weather is preying upon the region's most vulnerable roads – no more so than Gold Coast Drive.
Last summer, when I attended a forum on the proposal to rebuild Gold Coast, I saw members of the city engineering staff acknowledge the road's poor condition, and noted their amazement that it had been allowed to remain in such poor shape for so long. I also learned how the quick-and-dirty road building effort in the rapid build-up of Mira Mesa in 1970 and 1971 may have been, in part, to blame for the vulnerability of Gold Coast and other neighboring streets to the kind of drainage issues and damage that have been clear to anyone driving on it for well over a decade.
Chris Cate had at least three years to move heaven and earth to serve his constituents and fix these roads by the time I entered the race to challenge him in late 2017. He failed to do so. That failure is evident at this moment along Gold Coast Drive. This is an immediate crisis. The road is a disgrace.
Declare an emergency, sir. Get on a soapbox. Use the power of your office. Do something for your neighbors. Telling constituents you're aware of a problem and giving them the e-mail address of a staffer is hardly a solution. And passing responsibility for immediate action on to other city departments as though you are only a powerless bystander at the mercy of a bureacracy is not acceptable.
District 6 is desperate for a roll-up-your sleeves, get things done leader who makes a difference. My hard-working neighbors deserve it. That's part of the reason I ran for council.
The weather will soon dry, but the problem of crumbling infrastructure and lack of leadership won't go away. Whether by car, bus or bicycle – we have an immediate need to do better by our neighbors. Let's start by acknowledging the crisis. It's the roads, stupid.
Tommy Hough is a San Diego broadcast personality, environmental advocate and non-profit consultant. He lives in Mira Mesa.
By Tommy Hough
I'm looking forward to spending a bit of our weekend together this Sunday, Feb. 17, as San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action and club president Cody Petterson pitch in to support my campaign debt relief effort with a special fundraising event for my committee at Cody's home from 2 to 3:30 p.m.
Can you join us? RSVP now to reserve your spot for this Sunday, Feb. 17.
I co-founded San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action in 2014 and served as the club's first president, and I couldn't be more proud of our current board, direction and membership, especially at this critical moment for our region's environment.
And as we've seen in recent weeks with the advent of the Green New Deal and the passage of a pro-conservation Public Lands Bill in the Senate, when bonafide Environmental Democrats are elected and leading in office, we can get the environmental policy our planet needs.
From supporting Community Choice to opposing the Border Wall, preserving vernal pools to finding a lasting solution to the Tijuana River border sewage crisis, there is so much to do in San Diego County.
If you've already given the maximum, or if you'd like to make a larger contribution to my committee, let me know. And share this invitation with friends, neighbors and family.
Join San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action for a campaign debt relief fundraiser this Sunday, Feb. 17, at 2 p.m. in La Jolla, as we look toward 2020 and rededicate ourselves to our club's mission.
RSVP for more details. Thank you for your support.
By Tommy Hough
Last week, Senator Kamala Harris introduced two public lands conservation bills into the U.S. Senate: the Northwest California Wilderness Recreation and Working Forests Act, and the San Gabriel Mountains Foothills and Rivers Protection Act.
I'll get into the details of both bills in a follow-up post, but in both cases the Senate legislation is essentially duplicate versions of earlier House bills. That's fine – that's how these things work. This is a small speck of good news and a move Democratic policymakers across the country should begin to emulate.
Over the last several years, the GOP-dominated Congress, now aided and abetted by the most anti-environmental presidency in our nation's history, has presided over a wholesale reversal of America's conservation heritage, dating back to the era of Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir (if not Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson).
The rollbacks have been big and small, with varying consequences, but they've been entirely to the benefit of oil, gas and mining outlets in the west – further cementing the hostility the GOP has towards conservation policy, and the lucrative sway fossil fuel extractors continue to hold over our nation, the democratic process, and our planet's health.
Two generations ago, Richard Nixon signed into law the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Clean Water Act and Endagered Species Act. Of course, no one's going to confuse Richard Nixon with an environmentalist, but these bills were sent to Nixon's desk by a Democratic Congress – and he signed them because they were good politics. In fact, they were bipartisan affairs. In 1970, the public wanted and demanded these policies after decades of environmental degradation.
In fact, the first administrator of the EPA was a long-time Republican and outstanding environmental steward named William Ruckelshaus, whose first order of business was to ban DDT. But today, instead of embracing our best and brightest, Republican lawmakers (enabled by destructive right-wing media) defy science and reality in the service of corporate masters and benefactors, and use media and money to "confuse" the issue.
So let us ensure there is no confusion on this point: The GOP has collaborated and worked in tandem with fossil fuel and resource extraction industries since the 1980s to enable the current rollback of long-standing, functional environmental policies, even as growing mountains of evidence demonstrate the damage the extraction and use of fossil fuels has on our planet.
Energy and fossil fuel industries have been actively pushing these rollbacks, even as they claim to embrace renewable options for the sake of good public relations. To be fair, Democrats dance with many of these same players too, but not to the extent of the GOP, and certainly not to the point where active, effective policy is being rolled back as it is now. The damage and fallout comes in a variety of forms.
In 2014, during Obama's second term, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) weakened by persistent budget cuts to their law enforcement arm – and exacerbated by a lack of political will in Washington and within their own agency – was humiliated by scofflaw Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who became the darling of nutjob conspiracy theorists and weapons fetishists when his refusal to pay decades-old grazing fees on land that belongs to all Americans prompted an armed standoff with federal agents.
This clumsy inability to bring Bundy to justice, or even appropriately serve him with papers, not only indirectly led to a mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2014, but a domestic terrorism incident the following year as Bundy's family and followers carried out the armed seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Preserve in Eastern Oregon on New Year's Day 2016. Aided by regional GOP lawmakers, the seizure was an attempt to ignite a sagebrush rebellion, and resulted in a monthlong seige and the death of one of the culprits, as well as environmental damage to the site.
Interestingly, the Malheur was one of the first National Wildlife Refuges established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, and remains one of the area's biggest employers – hardly the Big Government-style "land grab" Bundy's supporters claimed they were remedying.
By early 2017, things had gone from bad to horrible with the election of Donald Trump. I'd warned throughout Obama's second term that the only thing keeping us from the abyss of an already runaway GOP was the pen of Barack Obama. As the Trump administration took office, we found out how accurate that was. Curiously, Trump's megalomania and incompetence has prevented some of the darkest aspects of GOP environmental skullduggery from moving forward, but he is still tolerated by the GOP elite as a useful idiot who will sign whatever is put in front of him.
Despite some weak pledges to the contrary during the 2016 campaign, Trump wasted no time taking a wrecking ball to Obama-era environmental policies once he took office. His administration has undone requirements for more fuel-efficient vehicles, scrapped industry-negotiated regulations to reduce toxins from coal-fired power plants, enabled coal plants to dump mercury and other toxins into our rivers and waterways, and is even cheering the melting of the polar ice cap (the better to ship oil across the North Pole).
And despite Democrats' success in the midterm elections, over the last several weeks the Trump administration has enabled drilling access for the oil and gas industry on 9 million acres of threatened sage grouse habitat in the intermountain west, mining on 1.3 million acres of the Mojave Desert here in California, and perhaps most tragic of all, the violation of 1.5 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which had been protected for preservation since the Eisenhower administration in 1960 until Congress shamelessly subverted this last great American wilderness last year. Just this week, bulldozers will begin plowing through the National Butterfly Center in Texas in order to enable construction of Trump's absurd border wall.
Then there was the undoing of the EPA's mission under Scott Pruitt (and now Andrew Wheeler), in which the agency actually issued an official video praising the benefits of coal, while voices of "dissent," otherwise known as capable scientists, were expelled from the agency. Over the last two years, hundreds of government professionals with decades of experience applying evidence to policy have been driven from the ranks of the EPA in an orchestrated brain drain never seen in our nation's history. We used to recruit the best and the brightest. Now we just want you to follow orders.
At the Interior Department, the gutting of regulatory and management agencies followed a similar path, and continues with a promotion of science-defying ignorance. Even in the first week of the Trump administration, the president made his Saddam Hussein-style banana republic dictatorial tendencies clear as the National Park Service – the Interior Department's showcase agency – came under pressure to "verify" Trump's bizarre claim about the number of attendees who had been in the National Mall for his inaguration.
Undeterred from looking like the fool he is, Trump pushed Interior, now under the leadership of phony cowboy and nakedly corrupt Ryan Zinke, to move forward with the unprecedented undoing of the boundaries of 27 National Monuments – an assault on the very heart of American conservation and the idealized western value of untrammeled open space and room to roam.
The radicalized Interior Department has thus far settled on two National Monuments the GOP and fossil fuel interests have long despised: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which was originally declared a monument by President Clinton in 1996, and Bears Ears National Monument, also in Utah, which was designated by President Obama during his final months in office.
Now, the Interior Department is enabling the sale and leasing of that land to fossil fuel extraction interests. This is public land that had been protected as part of the American heritage of National Monuments, and now stolen from a 112-year tradition of conservation. Consider for a moment the precedent that has now been set by an administration that has no connection to the outdoors, no connection to the west, and is only interested in what its oligarch funders instruct them to do.
The Russian model of doing business has been adopted by the executive branch of the United States and their elected minions in Congress. I've always said we'll be lucky if all Trump does is rob us blind, but as we've seen over the last two years, it's much worse than that. It's worse than we imagined.
So the midterm elections are over, but the work is not finished. In fact, the work hasn't even begun. We have much to do to simply return the scales to where they were before Trump took office on Jan. 20, 2017. Taking the House of Representatives was a needed beachhead – but the forces of cronyism, Big Energy, Big Oil, and anti-environmentalism still have a firm grip on the Senate, the White House, and to a lesser but more permanent extent, the Supreme Court. Will some of that change in 2020? Not if we allow ourselves to be divided and diminished.
Our work is not finished. There are no laurels. There is only policy that must be introduced and nurtured until we have a human being in the White House again who is capable of thinking beyond himself, who respects process, values democratic order vs. self-aggrandizing chaos, cares about our institutions and the missions of our agencies, and puts capable people in place to lead successfully – not deliberately fail out of incompetence as a predetermined demonstration against "big government."
Our work is not finished until we have a legislative branch that answes to all Americans, not Russian oligarchs, Trump cronies, destructive right-wing media, or money disguised as "speech" under the Supreme Court's cataclysmic 2010 Citizens United ruling.
This is why the introduction of conservation policy – the very essence of legislative humility – into the current chamber of horrors beneath the Capitol dome is needed. Conservation and preservation on its face isn't designed for short-term gain, but longevity that exceeds the lives of those here today.
Conservation policy acknowledges limits on man's ambitions into the wild, that there are some places where mankind is "only a visitor," and that there are some reaches of our land which are not part of civilization, and will never be tamed. Our government not only has a role in ensuring that, but a proud heritage and tradition of doing so, from the National Park Service to the Wilderness Act to the Roadless Rule. Leaders can move the needle.
Senator Harris' two bills, however small they may appear, are brave and necessary. If conservation policy passes as defiance, so be it, but these bills do a great deal to ensure greater protection for our wild ecosystems, and enable more effective, holistic access for a citizenry increasingly in need of quiet, space, and solace – and an opportunity for young and old to re-connect with our vanishing natural world.
We need more from the incoming House of Representatives than investigations. We need more from our wise members of the Senate. We need more from the boots on the ground of Americans everywhere. We are not content with our remaining wildlands and habitat becoming the fenced-off domain of oil and gas exploitation, of mining, of violent and destructive "recreation," and of clearcuts reaching into the horizon.
We are Americans, and preserving our natural heritage is an extension of our patriotism – claim it. It will always be up to us to ensure our public lands are treated with care and dignity for the benefit of all, but at this moment, on our watch, they remain endangered unlike any other time in our nation's history. The preservation of our country's natural heritage and special places is the task before us.
San Gabriel Mountains Wilderness photo by Tommy Hough
Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument photo by Bob Wick
Public lands graphic courtesy of The Wilderness Society
By Tommy Hough
We made time for the ballots to be counted, and it's clear the voters have spoken.
While we came up short, I'm proud of our effort, especially knowing we ran the very best, drama-free campaign possible.
I'm exceptionally proud of my team and the work we did in our District 6 communities of Clairemont, Mira Mesa, Kearny Mesa, Miramar, Sorrento Valley and Rancho Peñasquitos. You did an amazing job.
I can't begin to express how grateful I am to our volunteers. Those of you who helped, pitched in, made calls, walked, donated over and over, and wore this campaign as a badge of honor over the months know who you are.
You went the distance with me, and I will not forget it.
We had to overcome all the issues that come with a first-time candidacy, with little institutional support – not to mention running in a district many chose to believe was unwinnable from the outset. We were outspent by an 8 to 1 margin. When you factor in the additional resources my opponent had access to, that margin is even greater.
But I knew this was an opportunity to offer strong, dynamic, hands-on leadership for communities that are being left behind at City Hall.
Talking with our neighbors, listening to voters, and respecting the wisdom of our neighborhoods was the best way to represent the communities of District 6 and ensure they were heard.
I saw what it's like to live with gravel flying into my neighbors' yards from broken streets long overdue for repair, to know the gnawing insecurity that comes with an unstable paycheck and medical emergencies, and to understand what it means when children move away from home because they can't afford to live in the city of their birth.
I was also welcomed into my neighbors' homes to share backyard barbecues, eat fresh fruit from their trees, and talk about politics and policy over a local beer. In every case, my neighbors demonstrated generosity in time and attention, even when we disagreed.
I took the risk of running to offer a real choice to our District 6 residents, and to make a difference in the lives of the innumerable neighbors I connected with and the thousands of doors I knocked on this past year.
The result is clearly not what I would have preferred. But I wouldn't trade the time we've had together for anything.
Thank you for believing in me, my campaign, and our vision for San Diego.
Editor's Note: Sagebush is the dominant plant species in the Great Basin, especially in valley bottoms, plateaus and mountain foothills. Sagebrush provides habitat for a variety of animals in the region, most notably the sage grouse, which is declining as a species because of human activity like cattle grazing and gas drilling.
By George Wuerthner
Management with the Challis and Salmon Bureau of Land Management (BLM) districts in Central Idaho appear ready to destroy much of the sage grouse habitat in the nearby Lemhi, Pahsimeroi and Lost River valleys, ironically in the name of protecting sage grouse, in a destructive sagebrush "mowing" effort on 134,000 acres of public land in the Gem State.
As an ecologist, and someone who has studied both sagebrush and sage-grouse ecology, I find the proposal to crush over 130,000 acres of sagebrush in prime and associated sage grouse habitat almost criminal. I do not use that term lightly.
There is abundant scientific evidence that demonstrates sagebrush is critical to sage grouse survival. Currently, much of the area proposed for "treatment" doesn't even meet the BLM's minimum levels of sagebrush cover for sage grouse — thus destroying tens of thousands of acres of sagebrush can only lead to the continued decline of sage grouse in the area.
There is also abundant evidence that disturbance of sagebrush landscapes leads to an increase in cheatgrass. Cheatgrass is an invasive annual grass that is highly flammable. Since it can increase wildfire frequency in sagebrush landscapes, it is one of the significant threats to sagebrush ecosystems and sage grouse.
But cheatgrass does not suddenly appear from space or with aliens. Instead, the spread of cheatgrass is a direct consequence of disturbance that harms native grasses and landscapes. One recent study in Oregon that compared mowed and unmowed sagebrush sites concluded: "By the third year post-treatment annual forb and annual grass (cheatgrass) biomass production was more than nine and sevenfold higher in the mowed than reference treatment."
Another 2012 study found: "The preponderance of literature indicates that habitat management programs that emphasize treating (like mowing) Wyoming big sagebrush are not supported concerning positive responses by sage-grouse habitats or populations." The same study went on to conclude: "Most published information suggests that treatments to winter or breeding habitats of sage-grouse have a negative effect on the species."
And research published this year concludes that "grazing impacts resulted in reduced site resistance to B. tectorum, suggesting that grazing management that enhances plant and biocrust communities will also enhance site resistance" to cheatgrass. Translation: If you want healthy sagebrush ecosystems, remove the irritations like livestock grazing.
Beyond the fact that these treatments are likely to increase cheatgrass at the expense of sagebrush and sage grouse, the real threat to sage grouse in these valleys, and elsewhere across much of its range, is livestock production. Yet the BLM does not even consider the cumulative impacts of sagebrush destruction with the ongoing, adverse effects of domestic livestock production on these same lands.
If the BLM really wanted to improve things for sage grouse, it would be eliminating livestock grazing on OUR public lands.
For instance, much research has shown that the trampling of biological crusts enhances the spread of cheatgrass. Biological crust covers the soil in between perennial bunchgrasses and inhibits the seedling establishment of annual grasses like cheatgrass.
Cattle are also the primary agent that have destroyed riparian areas and wet meadows which are critical habitat to sage-grouse chicks. Livestock breaks down creekbanks which can lead to entrenchment of waterways and a lowering of water levels, which can then lead to a shrinkage of wet meadow habitat. Plus, by consuming streamside vegetation and reducing hiding cover, cattle expose sage grouse chicks to predators.
Fences constructed to control livestock constitute a significant source of mortality to sage grouse. Sage grouse are weak fliers and tend to fly close to the ground. In some studies, as much as 30 percent of sage-grouse populations are killed by collisions with fences.
Fences also act as "lookout posts" for avian predators like ravens.
In fact, why are their fences on public lands at all? Only one reason — to facilitate the exploitation of public resources for the benefit of private ranching interest.
The sage grouse requires habitat with a diverse plant community to provide shelter and food, especially a steady supply of insects to feed its young. Sage brush grouse also eat the leaves and flowers of soft, succulent forbs, as well as the insects that visit the plants. Unfortunately, livestock consumes many of the same forbs that sage grouse chicks require during the first couple of weeks of their lives, thus directly competing with sage grouse for an essential and critical food resource.
Water troughs designed to serve livestock also serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes that spread West Nile Virus, which in some areas is also a significant source of sage grouse mortality.
In short, the BLM appears to be capitulating to private interests at the expense of the public's interest in healthy sagebrush ecosystems and healthy sage-grouse populations.
This article originally appeared in The Wildlife News.
George Wuerthner has worked as a biologist, wilderness ranger, and range conservationist for the federal government. More recently he has served as a university instructor, photography instructor, consulting biologist, and wildlife policy analyst. He is the Oregon director of the Western Watersheds Project. George appeared on Tommy's Treehuggers International show in 2010.
By Tommy Hough
A final statement on the status of our campaign will be issued soon, but the most recent batch of election results are revealing:
These observations are telling. From the beginning, we knew this was a winnable race. We made it clear to those who would listen.
When my opponent and I taped a segment for NBC San Diego's Politically Speaking last month, he said I wasn't "connecting" with voters. How wrong he was.
And when Councilmember Cate's chief of staff felt I wasn't conceding fast enough for his liking after the election, he posted this unprofessional, unprovoked Tweet:
I'm not sure what kind of leader endorses mocking another person's debt, but I made the decision early on to build a machine to compete and win in District 6.
Regrettably, we've come up short. And that's why I need your help to reduce our campaign debt so I can honor my commitments. So many of you have already been so generous helping pay down our debt. Thank you.
If you haven't yet, can I count on you to make a contribution during your giving today?
Please consider a contribution to our debt relief effort. Every bit helps.
And if you or someone you know would like to make a significantly larger contribution to our debt relief effort, please contact our campaign consultant on how to do so.
Thank you for your support.
By Tommy Hough
On Sept. 24, 2018, while a candidate for San Diego City Council District 6, I filed an ethics complaint against my opponent, Councilmember Chris Cate, for late reporting of at least $7,500 in behested payments he received from San Diego Gas and Electric earlier in the year.
Shortly thereafter I received a letter dated Sept. 25, 2018, from the city's Ethics Commission acknowledging my complaint. The letter noted two things:
Despite two requests from myself and two letters sent to the Ethics Commission from our attorney, I have yet to receive any communication from the Ethics Commission on the status of the investigation. And since we have received no word from the Ethics Commission regarding our complaint, we can conclude Mr. Cate is, again, under investigation.
On Oct. 19, 2018, my opponent and I recorded a segment for NBC San Diego's Politically Speaking program, which aired that Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 20 and Oct. 21.
Host Gene Cubbison opened by asking my opponent about the ethics charges, noting in his introduction that Mr. Cate had already "been fined twice for ethics violations."
My opponent said I was "speaking before having all the facts," and proceeded to lay out a scenario where the behested payment filings were made before he had received money from San Diego Gas and Electric – implying the filings were made for no reason and with no money to report.
You can see the exchange here. The discussion begins at :37 seconds in.
If there were additional facts to be considered at that time, Mr. Cate should've share them with the TV audience, or with the public ahead of the election. Obviously, he was never going to do that.
Furthermore, the Ethics Commission should've made the status of the ongoing Preliminary Review public ahead of the election, as outlined in their letter and clearly intended by the commission's own "within 90 days of a municipal election" provision – which is there to ensure voters know the outcome of the investigation before the election.
Unfortunately for voters, and the public, someone ran out the clock ahead of Election Day. But the public still has a right to know, and the Ethics Commission has an obligation to see an investigation through under the provisions outlined in their own letter.
You can contact the San Diego Ethics Commission by phone at (619) 533-3477, or via e-mail at email@example.com.
Tommy Hough is a former San Diego broadcast personality, wilderness and parks advocate, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He was the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in the 2018 election cycle.